Sunday, January 2, 2011

After Christmas

From W. H. Auden, “For the Time Being”

Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes –
Some have got broken — and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school. There are enough
Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week –
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted — quite unsuccessfully –
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers. Once again
As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility, once again we have sent Him away,
Begging though to remain His disobedient servant,
The promising child who cannot keep His word for long.
The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory,
And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware
Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought
Of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now
Be very far off. But, for the time being, here we all are,
Back in the moderate Aristotelian city
Of darning and the Eight-Fifteen, where Euclid’s geometry
And Newton’s mechanics would account for our experience,
And the kitchen table exists because I scrub it.
It seems to have shrunk during the holidays. The streets
Are much narrower than we remembered; we had forgotten
The office was as depressing as this. To those who have seen
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.
For the innocent children who whispered so excitedly
Outside the locked door where they knew the presents to be
Grew up when it opened. Now, recollecting that moment
We can repress the joy, but the guilt remains conscious;
Remembering the stable where for once in our lives
Everything became a You and nothing was an It.

This excerpt from the end of Auden's long Christmas poem is particularly appropriate for this time of year. It gets at the mix of nostalgia and hope and often disappointment that attends the holiday season. The speaker meditates on missing it, yet again, by not being fully attentive to the “promising child.” His best intentions to love both his relatives and his God have once again been derailed by distraction and by the reality that love is not easy. He is disappointed to return to “the time being”—the time of going to work, scrubbing the table. On another level, Auden's poem speaks to me about my journey in prayer, because I have higher intentions and hopes than are actually realized. Another year gone by and I'm not as committed, centered, mindful as I had hoped I would be. My prayer life has been, for the most part, a series of misses. Just like the speaker of the poem, I catch a glimpse of something beautiful and life-changing, only to be drawn away to my own distractions and shortcomings. It is difficult to retain a sense of God's presence and love, in spite of my best intentions.

But this might be the wrong way to think about it. The shattering of my idealistic expectations about the Christian life is not a failure. Prayer is not easy. Even one glimpse of God at the stable where “Everything became a You and nothing was an It” is enough to leave one changed, reborn. This insight takes root and changes us from the inside out. The final line that I've quoted invokes Buber, who suggests two primary modes of existence: I-It and I-Thou. We primarily move in the I-It dimension, in which we see ourselves, God, other people as objects that can be known, used, and perhaps exploited. There is nothing inherently wrong with the I-It, but it is severely limited. With God's help, we become aware of the I-Thou dimension, by which God, ourselves, and other people are recognized as infinitely valuable persons to be in relation with but never fully known, because to know fully would render the Thou an It. The encountered Thou, Buber writes, "has no borders." The I-Thou is relation without the violence of objectification. Contemplative prayer helps us to recognize God as Thou. Our moments of insight—whether at Christmas or at other times—can move us in this process of awakening to the infinite God. Even as we must return to the concerns of the time being, prayer helps us to slowly grow in the awareness that God is infinite Thou, as are God's creatures. It is this beautiful vision of love and connection with God, with other people, and with myself that sustains me in prayer even when I seem to miss it (again).

5 comments:

RC said...

Very powerful and beautiful excerpt and reflection! Very insightful and well-written. Thank you for investing in this way. I think faith and faithfulness are key in persevering, and you express this so well. I am encouraged, and I am grateful to share this spirituality with you.
--Rickey

Paul Corrigan said...

". . . love is not easy."

"Prayer is not easy."

". . . I have higher intentions and hopes than are actually realized."

Amen. Thanks for sharing, John.

living stones said...

John, I’ve enjoyed this poem in the past, but your thoughtful reflection helped me see in a new way. (Also, the clarity of your writing is a gift.) The thought that stands out to me is “prayer helps us to slowly grow…” God is not in any hurry, and I’m so grateful for his patience in drawing me onward. Thanks again for sharing. Blessings, Anna

RC said...

John, I have been continuing to think about this quote from your post, so I commenting for a second time: "With God's help, we become aware of the I-Thou dimension, by which God, ourselves, and other people are recognized as infinitely valuable persons to be in relation with but never fully known, because to know fully would render the Thou an It. The encountered Thou, Buber writes, 'has no borders.' The I-Thou is relation without the violence of objectification." I think this is frightening as well as exciting. I am praying for the courage and strength to live this out in reality. Mostly, I'm excited!
--Rickey

Daniel said...

John, I really enjoyed this post! The honesty and thoughtfulness of your words have captured much of what I'm feeling this time of year, but, more importantly, they help me slow down and reflect on my relationships and my commitment to the spiritual journey. Blessings in this new year.

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